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Roman Glass Boats

Roman Glass Boats

This note discusses the function of a group of Roman glass models of boats. Six boats are known. They were found at Pompeii (two examples, including Fig. 1),1 Palombara in Sabina,2 Aquileia3 and Santa Elena di Melma near Treviso in ltaly,4 and St. Aldegund near Koblenz in Germany.5 All of the models are similar. In length, they are 11 cm (Palombara in Sabina), 17.7 cm (Aquileia), 20 cm (Santa Elena di Melma), 22.2 cm (St. Aldegund), and 22.4 cm (Pompeii). They were cast, and all of them were finished by cutting, grinding, and polishing. In at least four cases, four small feet were applied to the bottom. The hull of each model is hollow, and the stem is raised; sometimes, the prow, too, is raised. At least five of the models are colored: green (one of the boats from Pompeii), opaque white (Palombara in Sabina), blue (Aquileia and St. Aldegund), and dark purple (Santa Elena di Melma).

The two boats from Pompeii were made not later than A.D. 79 (the year in which the city was destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius), and they are generally dated to the second quarter or the middle of the first century A.D.6

The precise find-places of three of the other boats are known. The boat from Palombara in Sabina was found in the marble ash urn of a 12-year-old girl, Laetilia Gemella.7 The example from Santa Elena di Melma came from a glass cinerary urn that also contained a glass toilet bottle, a ring, and an illegible coin.8 The boat from St. Aldegund was found in the fourth-century grave of a woman.9

The function and significance of the boats have been explained in several different ways. One of the examples from Pompeii is said to have been found containing jewelry, and this (together with the knowledge that two other boats came from the graves of females) led Kenneth Painter to suggest that boats may have adorned women's dressing tables.10 M. Carina Calvi, on the other hand, suggested that the boat in the grave at Santa Elena di Melma might indicate that the deceased person had worked with boats during his lifetime;11 and Gabriella Bordenache Battaglia saw the boat from Palombara in Sabina as a symbol of the journey from this world to the next.12

It is possible, however, that the boats had a rather more prosaic function. In his monograph Lateinische Gefässnamen, Werner Hilgers discussed the several meanings of the Latin word scaphium (literally, an object shaped like a scapha, or small boat).13 It appears that boat-shaped or boat-like vessels had a variety of functions in the Roman world: they were used for drinking,14 as components of water clocks and sundials, and as urinals.

The six objects in the group are so similar that I assume they all served the same purpose. It is difficult to imagine that they were used for drinking; their sides are almost straight, and some of them are raised at both the prow and the stem. Similarly, we must exclude water clocks from their possible functions. Vitruvius's description of the water clock invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria describes the float, which was part of the mechanism, as "an inverted scaphium, also known as a cork or a drum."15 Perhaps this object was called a boat because it floated rather than because of its shape. In any case, the boats under consideration would not have served the purpose, especially when inverted. And the scaphia used as sundials were not shaped like boats with relatively narrow hulls; they were circular, with the gnomon set in the center.16

Elimination of the first three uses listed above leads us to consider the fourth possibility: that the boats are urinals. Hilgers noted five unambiguous references to urinals called scaphia.17 One of these passages consists of two lines from an epigram composed by the poet Martial in A.D. 96 (11.11.5-6):

Te potare decet gemma qui Mentora frangis in scaphium moechae, Sardanapalle, tuae.18

Are the glass boats women's urinals? We do not know; but the discovery of two examples in the graves of females shows that at least some objects of this type were used by women, and it may be significant that the smallest boat of all was found in the tomb of a 12-year-old. It may not be irrelevant that objects of similar shape and size were used by women as urinals in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Known as bourdalous (the origin of the name is obscure), they were made on the Continent, in England, and in China and Japan for the European market.19 Porcelain, majolica, silver, and glass examples are known; many are decorated as carefully as tableware. They are shaped like sauce boats. The specimens illustrated by Newman vary in length from 17 cm to 27.3 cm. Thus, the notion that the elegant objects may be urinals is not unduly incongruous.


This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 37 (1995), 133–135.


1. Donald B. Harden and others, Glass of the Caesars, Milan: Olivetti, 1987, p. 48, no. 24 (= A. Göttlicher, Materialen für ein Corpus der Schiffimodelle im Altertum, Mainz, 1978, p. 84, no. 501 ); Göttlicher, p. 84, no. 503 (formerly in the museum at Pompeii; now lost).

2. Gabriella Bordenache Battaglia, Corredi funerari di età imperiale e barbarica nel Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1983, pp. 27–29.

3. K. S. Painter in D. B. Harden and others, Masterpieces of Glass, London: British Museum, 1968, p. 45, no. 53.

4. M. Carina Calvi, "La barchetta vitrea del Museo di Treviso," Aquileia Nostra, vv. 45–46, 1974–1975, cols. 479–486.

5. W. Haberey and Y. Roder, "Das frühchristliche Frauengrab von St. Aldegund," Germania, v. 39, 1961 , pp. 128–142, esp. pp. 132–134 (= Göttlicher [note 1], p. 84, no. 502).

6. E.g., by Painter in Harden and others [note 3], p. 45; Calvi [note 4], col. 479; Bordenache Battaglia [note 2], pp. 28-29; and, most recently, Painter in Harden and others [note 1), p. 48.

7. Bordenache Battaglia [note 2).

8. Calvi [note 4).

9. Haberey and Roder [note 5).

10. Painter in Harden and others [note 1], p. 48.

11. Calvi [note 4), col. 486.

12. Bordenache Battaglia [note 2], p. 29.

13. Werner Hilgers, Lateinische Gefässnamen. Bezeichnungen, Funktion und Form römischer Gefässe nach den antiken Schriftquellen, Dusseldorf: Rheinland-Verlag, 1969, pp. 271–272. Scaphium was borrowed from Greek σκαφιον, a small boat, drinking vessel, or chamber pot (cf. Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 633, and Eupolis 46).

14. Plautus, Stichus 693.

15. Vitruvius 9.8.5: "scaphium inversum, quod ... phellos sive tympanum dicitur."

16. Martianus Capella 6.597: "Quippe scaphia dicuntur rotunda ex aere vasa, quae horarum ductus stili in medio fundo siti proceritate disciminant, qui stili gnomon appellatur" (Indeed, the round copper vessels are called scaphia. They distinguish the periods of the hours by a tall spike set in the center; the spike is called a gnomon).

17. Hilgers [note 13], p. 271: Martial 11.11.5; Ulpian, Digest 34.2.27.5; Juvenal 6.264; Caelius Aurelianus, Chron. 4.3.50; and Gloss. 5.654.25. The last of these could not be more specific: "scap[h]ium vas turpe ad ventris necessitates [sic]" (a scaphium is an unseemly vessel for the needs of the stomach).

18. "It is appropriate for you, Sardanapallus, to drink from a precious cup, who break Mentors to make a chamberpot for your mistress.” Sardanapallus, a legendary king of Assyria, ws proverbial for his luxurious way of life. Mentor was a famous silversmith of the fourth century B.C. Melting doewn an original piece by Mentor to make a chamber pot, therefore, would be an outrageous extravagance. See N.M. Kay, Martial Book XI, London: Duckworth, 1985, pp. 90–92.

19. Harold Newman, “Bourdalous. Part 1: Some English Examples,” The Connoisseur, v. 175, no. 706, December 1970, pp. 258–264; idem, “Bourdalous. Part 2: Some Continental Examples,” The Connoisseur, v. 177, no. 711, May 1971, pp. 22–31.

Published on March 28, 2013

David Whitehouse, Senior Scholar
David Whitehouse (1941-2013) joined The Corning Museum of Glass in 1984 as chief curator. He was named deputy director of collections in 1987, was promoted to deputy director of the Museum in 1988, and became director in 1992. He was appointed to...
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